WEST BABYLON, N.Y., Sept. 28 (RNS)--For 20 years, beginning at age 14, Barry Baugh was a drug addict.

"Every day of my life I got high," said Baugh, 49, a former semi-pro basketball player who lives on Long Island. "I started with pot. From there it escalated to pills, to acid, and then to cocaine."

He spent five years in jail on drug charges. Released in 1989, he finally kicked his habit, he says, through Teen Challenge, a worldwide residential program that claims to cure addiction solely through the power of Jesus Christ. Today, Baugh is director of outreach for the organization's Long Island chapter.

"Teen Challenge brought me to a personal relationship with Jesus. That's how I got free from drugs," Baugh said.

Teen Challenge, founded in 1958 by the Rev. David Wilkerson, pastor of the evangelical Times Square Church and author of "The Cross and the Switchblade," claims to be the oldest, largest and most successful anti-drug program in the world.

It is indeed a huge operation. According to the organization's national office in Springfield, Mo., Teen Challenge has 300 centers worldwide, of which 130 are in the United States. Unlike organizations such as Phoenix House, Teen Challenge receives no public funding.

But both Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush and his Democratic opponent Al Gore, want to change all that and have voiced support for the expanded use of giving federal funds to faith-based social service agencies. Gore, however, has been more general and less specific in his endorsement of what is also known as charitable choice.

With a claimed 86 percent success rate, Teen Challenge illustrates the potential benefits of faith-based programs. But a lack of oversight and public accountablility have raised questions in some minds about how truly effective these programs are.

Bush, far more enthusiastically than Gore, proposes "faith-based" charities, not the government, as the solution to the downtrodden and drug-and-alcohol addicted. Bush believes these programs to be more effective than those the government runs and he says he wants to expand their reach.

The government, he said during his nomination acceptance speech in Philadelphia, "can feed the body, but it cannot reach the soul." To help the needy, he says, the government should first turn to "FBOs."

And he often cites Teen Challenge as a prototype.

"We need to have mentoring programs energized by government, paid for by government, but who exist not because of government. Teen Challenge is a way to get people off drugs and alcohol. Teen Challenge is a faith-based program that changes people's hearts," Bush told an audience in Georgia in March.

He thinks the government should fund "FBOs," and he says he will set up an "Office of Faith-Based Action."

"Faith-based" is a vague term, and it can refer to anything from Catholic Charities or The Jewish Board of Family Services--professional organizations that receive public funding and are therefore subject to state and federal regulations--right down to your local autonomous storefront church that claims to cure drug addicts solely through Jesus.

It is of course the mostly evangelical variety that Bush is referring to when he talks about "faith-based." And Teen Challenge is the shiniest example.

Teen Challenge first caught Bush's attention in 1995 when Texas' state regulatory agency threatened to close down a local chapter for various violations. Bush as governor not only took Teen Challenge's side, but even sponsored laws exempting faith-based drug programs from state regulations that apply to their secular counterparts.

Bush wants to do something similar on the national level. But he does not address the issue of oversight. Of the 130 Teen Challenge centers in the United States, only 14 elected to join the Washington D.C-based Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a sort of Consumers Union for evangelical charities.

Long Island Teen Challenge is not among those 14. Executive director Jimmy Jack did not respond to repeated requests for information about the chapter's finances or success rates.

"This isn't our priority," said Deborah Valentine, an administrative assistant at the West Babylon Long Island office, when asked why Jack did not return calls. Jack, she said, was too busy ministering to desperate people.

"Each Teen Challenge center is semi-autonomous," David Scotch, accreditation and curriculum coordinator at the Teen Challenge national office, said in a recent phone interview.

Each center, he said, raises its own funds. Still, Scotch said, each of the 130 chapters must file monthly financial reports to the national office, as well as an annual outside audit.

Last year, he said, the U.S. centers together raised approximately $50 million. Scotch said he visits each center every four years. Centers that do not comply with all the standards set by the national office lose their Teen Challenge accreditation, as happened at one center during this past year. He would not identify the center.

But lack of accountability is only one serious issue the charitable choice proposals raise. Another is effectiveness. Nobody knows whether FBOs work even as well as traditional drug rehabilitation programs, which all have a high rate of recidivism.

"There has not yet been any research that gives clear evidence that faith-based partnerships are more effective than current models," said Mark Chaves, associate professor of sociology at the University of Arizona. whose specialty is religion.

Chaves has been studying this phenomenon for the past four years. "Powerful voices are saying that it's OK to be marginalized, and we'll publicly fund you," he said, referring to Bush's open support for unregulated FBOs. "I'm troubled by a party that would privilege faith-based organizations. And if we're going to, we need to know that they do things better. But we don't."

Sociologist Fred De Jong of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., agrees. De Jong, together with his colleague, Beryl Hugen, has looked at every published source that he could find on FBOs. The few studies that were actually conducted to document their effectiveness, he said, all contained flawed methodology.

"There are huge expectations about what FBOs can do," said De Jong. "People think that they could be more effective than government in developing human services."

And while De Jong, himself an evangelical Chrstian, says that in some cases this might be true, the evidence to support this simply does not exist.

"I believe that they are effective," De Jong said. "But I just don't have empirical evidence."

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